Book Review Thursday: Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal


A dear friend who recently passed away once wrote an article about his ancestors and reflected on how, as the nineteenth century dawned, lifestyles began to change.  Before the 1800’s life was much the same through generations of families.  Then, the nineteenth century – what my friend called “The Century of Acceleration” – dawned and with it rapid change from beginning to end (and of course, beyond).

America had just concluded its war for independence and many were looking to the west to expand beyond the confines of the eastern seaboard and the original thirteen colonies.  One of the major challenges the expanding nation would encounter was better ways to transport goods back and forth from the established urban and rural areas of the east to those who chose to venture to the west.  Yes, roads could have been carved through the mountains and forests, but what about a waterway to convey those needed supplies?

Many had thought of building a canal system but Jesse Hawley, who took it upon himself to survey the Mohawk Valley, was the many who finally got it done, but only after petitioning the New York State Legislature and gaining the support of Governor DeWitt Clinton.  The challenges were great with varying altitudes and rises along the proposed three hundred and sixty-mile canal.  A system of locks would become necessary to accommodate those variances.

Many mocked the idea but on October 26, 1825 the canal opened for business.  Along the way, however, there were other events of note occurring along the canal some would call “Heaven’s Ditch”.  The book’s subtitle says it all: God, Gold and Murder.

Author Jack Kelly writes a compelling narrative of not only the challenges of building this historic waterway, but in the spirit of my favorite authors wrote about the other events which grabbed the headlines in the early years of the nineteenth century as the canal was being built.  Not the least of these events is what many would call “The Second Great Awakening” which swept through western New York.

Charles G. Finney made his mark on this era, as did many other fiery preachers of the gospel.  At one point the area would come to be called “The Burned Over District” – with so much fervent evangelization there seemed to be no one left to convert.  During this era Joseph Smith’s family was struggling to make ends meet and he would have a series of visions, out of which came the tenets of a denomination who would later call themselves Latter Day Saints, or Mormons.

I have to admit I didn’t know a whole lot about Mormon history, but found Kelly’s narrative formative and compelling.  Two other “hot topics” of the era were interspersed throughout the book:  Masonry and the rise of Anti-Mason sentiment and the abolition of slavery.  These two topics in particular would begin to shape the political battles of the rest of the century and beyond.

Yet, as some reviewers have pointed out the book is more “heaven than ditch” with more emphasis on the spiritual revival and the journey of Joseph Smith becoming the leader of a mysterious, and often maligned, religion.  It wasn’t that surprising, however, to learn of the early push for abolition given that when it was finally confronted head-on with a civil war after years of infighting and bickering in the halls of government.  Kelly points out that anti-Mason sentiment would later propel other causes such as the temperance and women’s suffrage movements.  In this book the anti-Mason sentiment arises after a western New York man mysteriously disappears after threatening to publish a book about the Masons and their secret society.  Presumably, William Morgan was murdered as a result (although his body was never found).

I found it a fascinating read – but then again I usually find any history book on the nineteenth century fascinating.  I’m totally enamored with this particular century.  If you are interested in learning more about the early history of America following its independence and its march westward, you will also find this a compelling read – just be aware it’s “more heaven than ditch”.

Rating:  ★★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

  © Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2016.

Book Review Thursday: The Brigade: An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation and WWII


Howard Blum’s latest book is about many things as the sub-title implies: Vengeance, Salvation and World War II.  Palestine was under British control and in November 1944 the British finally agreed to send five thousand Jewish soldiers to fight the Nazis.  This may be surprising to some people who assumed Jews weren’t allowed to fight back against Nazi tyranny and the horrors of the Holocaust.

While the brigade’s contributions had very little influence on the eventual outcome, still they were extremely proud to have been allowed to serve.  In fact, at times it was downright frustrating to be held back to participate in only minor operations.  Yet, when given the chance to fight the Jewish Brigade proved themselves more than adequate to the task at hand.  Of course, by the time the brigade was sent to Europe the war was winding down.  Five months later Hitler and the Germans were soundly defeated.

The men chosen to serve in the brigade had been living in Palestine, having migrated there from various parts of the world.  At this time, of course, the State of Israel was non-existent.  It was extremely heart-wrenching for the brigade to witness first-hand the persecution of their brethren at the hands of the Nazis.  That’s when things got rather interesting.

As one reads the book it sounds much like a novel.  However, this is a true story of how this group not only ably served, but once the war had ended remained “on duty” while pillaging the enemy and exacting vengeance.  It’s quite an interesting story full of details of exploits these fiercely and proudly Jewish men undertook not only for revenge, but ultimately to be able to return to Palestine and someday have a country of their own.

They smuggled refugees, food, weapons – you name it – to Palestine.  Although this was never mentioned in the book, just a short time later the State of Israel was born.  I can’t help but think that the actions of these men were vitally significant in laying the groundwork, not only for the State of Israel, but for what became one of the world’s most elite and well-trained military.

It’s a fascinating read about a part of World War II history which perhaps few are aware of.  The book is less about the war itself and more about the lives and struggles of some members of the Brigade.  Though it is about war the story itself is uplifting and well worth your time to read.  Another Howard Blum (one of my favorite authors) gem!

Rating:  ★★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

  © Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2016.

Book Review Thursday: Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour


So much has been written about Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain.  One might assume there couldn’t possibly be one more book written about one of America’s most beloved characters.  Author Richard Zacks, however, has managed to do just that in his latest book.

Zacks brought the story to life through Twain’s never published notebooks and correspondence, bringing a unique perspective to a somewhat “dark period” in the author’s life.  Mark Twain was a highly successful humorist and author, but as a businessman he failed in 1894 after investing in an ill-conceived invention which never quite lived up to its potential.

As a result his publishing company went under; buried in debt, he declared bankruptcy.  His wife Olivia (Livy), a coal heiress, was heartsick at the possibility of their good name being sullied.  Twain promised Livy he would pay back every penny despite the fact there was no legal responsibility to do so once he filed for bankruptcy.  But, how to do that?

Twain, at this point in his life, really hated the idea of performing, yet it seemed the only way to make headway against the mountains of debt.  He was fifty-nine years of age but set out to make good on his word by embarking on an around-the-world comedy tour.  After traveling throughout the American West he and Livy and daughter Clara set sail for places like Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa where he entertained sold-out audiences.

The book tells the story of their travels and adventures (and let’s face it with Mark Twain, some misadventures), including a wild ride down a Himalayan mountain, while interspersing it with excerpts from Twain’s unpublished letters and diary entries.  Zacks also fills the narrative with background details which provide a historical backdrop to the Gilded Age and what would soon be the end of the Victorian era.  If you’re a fan of Mark Twain you will enjoy the chance to read some of this previously unpublished material.

Despite illness (coughing and carbuncles were his bane) and setbacks along the way the Clemens family finally made it back to England, only to soon learn that their oldest child Susy was dying.  The family, devastated by her loss, waited a few more years before returning home.  It took some time for Twain to recover from her loss; Livy seemed never to have overcome it.

The newspapers announced to the world that Mark Twain had failed, but cheered him on nevertheless as he made his world tour.  Curiously, after his daughter’s death, newspapers began publishing obituary-like stories about how he was despondent and near death.  Notably, this is where the infamous Twain quote “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” arose, although what he actually said was “The report of my death was an exaggeration”.  In the telling and retelling the quote had morphed into the former.

This episode of Twain’s life – literally chasing the last laugh since he would not ever tour again – eventually paid off by allowing him to accumulate enough funds through re-negotiated book contracts and the proceeds of his comedy tour to allow Samuel Clemens to keep his promise to his beloved Livy.  Of course, not long afterwards he was chasing yet another “investment opportunity”.  Such was life with one of America’s most beloved and fascinating characters.  A deeply-researched and well-written account well worth your time to read.

Rating:  ★★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

  © Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2016.

Book Review Thursday: Two World War II Spy Stories


I’ve been lax of late in writing here at Digging History as I’ve undertaken some ancestry and book research projects.  I’ve also been inundated with trying to keep up with library books I’ve had on hold all coming my way at the same time it seems.  In the last two weeks I’ve read two somewhat-related books about World War II spies – one about a woman who to many in the world of MI6 and OSS during the war was known only as “Cynthia” and the other about an American family living in Paris who joined the Resistance and paid a dear price.

The Last Goodnight

I am a fan of Howard Blum.  I eagerly wait for his new books to be released and make sure I’m in line to check it out as soon as I can from the library.  After seeing initial reviews of his latest book, I wasn’t so sure I’d like it or not.

Truth be told I had mixed feelings about the book – it was hard to decide if Betty Pack (a.k.a. “Cynthia”) was a true patriot or perhaps just a nymphomaniac whom the British and Americans exploited.  One reviewer suggested she may have been possessed of narcissistic personality disorder.  I’m not sure about that, but Ms. Pack seemed to have little or no compunction about “putting herself out there” as a temptress.

As a young woman she married an older man, a British diplomat, and almost immediately began cheating on him and did so throughout their marriage.  She seemed to fall in and out of love with men other than her husband on a mere whim.  In the end she did prove to be extremely useful to the Allied cause, pulling off one of the most stunning thefts of classified material which led to a victorious North African campaign.

She was sleeping with the man who worked with her on this project and eventually married him after Arthur committed suicide.  Yet, in time she would need a new adventure or “mission” as she called it.  Blum relied on the archived papers of another British spy, Harford Montgomery Hyde (another of Ms. Pack’s paramours), to craft the story – and most likely some of it was imagined rather than hard facts.  Still, I found the story interesting enough to continue even after what I considered a slow start.  Given the life Betty Pack led, Blum kept the narrative from being overly-salacious, however.

I normally give Howard Blum’s books an automatic 4- or 5-star rating because they cover such a wide range of history – not just the event he’s writing about but the surrounding history (from which I’ve derived some of my articles here).  This one had a narrower focus and was at first a little hard to get into.  Still, anyone interested in the “behind-the-scenes” covert work which helped bring about the defeat of the Nazis would find it a fascinating, though somewhat flawed, read.

Rating:  ★★★-1/2

Avenue of Spies

This book by Alex Kershaw, who has written several books based on true World War II stories, was quite different.  Although a true story it read much like a thriller, or as the Chicago Tribune characterized it, “classic narrative nonfiction.”

Dr. Sumner Jackson, a decorated American World War I veteran, was born in Maine but had remained in France following the conclusion of the Great War.  He had met a Swiss nurse, Toquette, and they fell in love, married and had a son (Phillip).  Much of the book is based on countless hours of interviews with Phillip Jackson.

Sumner Jackson worked at the American Hospital and he and his family lived in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in all of Paris – Avenue Foch.  After the Nazis overran France and divided the country, many Nazis (and many of them ardent Francophiles) made their headquarters nearby and along the Avenue Foch.  The Jackson family, surrounded by the enemy on all sides, nevertheless decided to become part of the solution and joined the Resistance.

The family endured the same trials as others, although many residents seemed to have decided to acquiesce and let the Nazis have run of their fair city.  Kershaw tells the amazing story of how the Jackson family participated in a vast spy network right under the noses of the Nazis.  Despite all odds the family managed to “stay under the radar” and carry on their lives, although it would become increasingly dangerous.

When they were finally taken away and separated (Sumner and Phillip to one camp and Toquette to another), the story takes on much the same narrative as other books I’ve reviewed here about the Jewish Holocaust.  Their lives were filled with uncertainty yet they managed to survive (well, almost all of them) – Sumner especially dutiful in taking care of patients while imprisoned, despite his own precarious health.

While it did take me a bit to latch onto the narrative, I eventually found it a compelling read told through the eyewitness accounts of Phillip Jackson.  World War II brought out the best in true patriots during one of the darkest periods of world history.  Sumner Jackson and his family were some of the bravest.  Anyone interested in World War II espionage and intrigue will find this a great read.

Rating:  ★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

  © Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2016.

Book Review Thursday: The Secrets of the Notebook: A Woman’s Quest to Uncover Her Royal Family Secret


Even after the author’s family fled Nazi Germany to take refuge in London, they still faced danger as Hitler’s blitzkrieg pounded England.  On the day Eve Haas (nee Jaretzki) turned sixteen her father showed her a piece of family history, a notebook, which contained secrets about her family’s history.  Years later after both of her parents had passed away Eve finally came into possession of the notebook.  Although her family had warned against researching the secrets lodged in the notebook, Eve decided to pursue it nonetheless.  The notebook’s opening inscription alone was intriguing enough to propel her forward, ignoring her family’s warnings.

By this time she had a family of her own, having been raised as a non-orthodox, secular Jew.  Her grandmother had been left behind and more than likely suffered death at the hands of the brutal Nazi regime.  The details which began to unfold revealed one startling revelation after another, but in order to get the complete story Eve and her husband had to find a way to access records which at this time were stored in Communist East Germany.

The process of discovering her family’s secret history took years of patience and research and Ms. Haas gives a thorough account of  both triumphs and disappointments.  At the heart of what she discovered was a touching love story and the identities of her great-great grandparents, one of which was Prussian royalty (and a distant relative of England’s Queen Victoria).  Due to the treachery of his own family and attempts on his young wife Emilie’s life, Prince August was forced to take extraordinary measures to protect their only child Charlotte, Eve’s great grandmother.

Granted, not everyone who sets out on a journey to discover their family’s history will find this kind of intrigue, let alone royalty or even some well-known historical figure.  Still, I found the story an intriguing one (one of those hard-to-put-down kind of stories), given my own interest in genealogical research.

Anyone who loves a good mystery, with a little bit of Cold-War intrigue and an interest in genealogy, will find this a great read – although I must warn at times the details may bog you down a bit.  A bonus for me was the inclusion of European history of which I had no previous knowledge.

Without a doubt any family researcher who has encountered brick wall after brick wall will appreciate how meticulously and diligently Ms. Haas pursued her goals.  The book, originally published in England, was an Irish Times best seller.  A movie based on the book is in development, but do yourself a favor and read the book first (almost always better than the movie!).

Rating:  ★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

  © Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2016.

Ghost Town Wednesday: Shafter, The Silver Capital of Texas

GhostTownWednesdayThis area of Texas is home to just a handful of residents these days, but once boasted a population of four thousand.  The town was named for Colonel (later General) William R. Shafter, commander at Fort Davis, and located about eighteen miles north of Presidio.  It became a mining town after rancher John W. Spencer found silver ore there in September 1880.

Shafter had the sample assayed and found it contained enough silver to make it profitable to mine – profitable enough for Shafter himself to invest.  Spencer had thought it prudent to share his secret with Shafter since the area was prone to periodic Indian attacks.  Protection would be needed to carry out successful mining operations.


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Monday Musings: Spring Cleaning (and a few odds and ends)

MondayMusingsHave you started spring cleaning yet?  I’m not sure if you’d call it spring cleaning, but of late I’ve been trying to organize my life a little better.  I spent a few hours recently cleaning and re-organizing my storage unit and found some long-forgotten stuff (and some stuff I should have forgotten and thrown away a long time ago, truth be told!).

Of course, that got me to thinking about the history of spring cleaning.  Whenever or however it all began, it appears to have first been practiced for religious reasons.  For instance, the Jewish season of Passover is preceded by Unleavened Days of Bread – seven days when not a crumb of leavened bread is to remain in the house.  Orthodox Jews would clean their home thoroughly to eliminate the possibility of violating this sacred observance.

Traditionally in Eastern Orthodox faiths the home is thoroughly cleaned during the week of Great Lent – the first day being “Clean Monday” or “Pure Monday”.  For the faithful, the week represents a time of spiritual cleansing as well.

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Far-Out Friday: Death By Pimple


I ran across this intriguing subject while researching an early Surname Saturday article about the Pimple surname.  I found several references to so-called “death by pimple” and researched further.  Clearly, the problem was due to lack of an effective way to treat infection prior to the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

That’s not to say doctors didn’t try to treat infections.  There were advertisements galore during the nineteenth century hailing various “miracle cures” for all sorts of maladies, pimples included.  The first instance found in a search of “pimple” at yielded an article about a suspect in the disappearance of a surgeon who “hath been set upon by some ill people.”

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Book Review Thursday: The Mapmaker’s Children


I really enjoy books like this one: historical fiction with a goal of writing not only a compelling story but educating the reader about a little-known or long-forgotten historical figure.  Such is the case with The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy as she juxtaposes the Civil War era with a strikingly similar modern story set one hundred and fifty years into the future.

The narrative alternates between two women: Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson.  Sarah is the daughter of abolitionist John Brown, afflicted with a childhood illness which left her barren.  Similarly, Eden is struggling with infertility in the twenty-first century world of hormone injections and the unsuccessful and frustrating attempts to conceive via modern technology.

As the story unfolds the reader will eventually get a sense as to the direction it’s heading as the two women’s lives (and their struggles) intersect.  Faced with the inability to bear children, both women struggle to find purpose in life.  For Sarah, she continues to champion her father’s cause by using her artistic skills to paint maps for slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad.

On the other hand, Eden struggles with her marriage and the failure to conceive.  Her husband Jack purchases a puppy for her, and although she regards it initially as insensitivity to her emotional needs, she eventually embraces the pet (named Cricket) and finds a way to move on with her life and later become an entrepreneur.  Through a series of clues found in her new home Eden begins to piece together an important historical link to not only the house, but the townspeople who have befriended her.  As you might guess, these “clues” are an intricate part of Sarah Brown’s story.

McCoy wrote in her author’s notes about a phrase that kept running through her mind: “a dog is not a child.”  After committing the phrase to her journal the first pages of the book outlining the modern setting of New Charlestown, West Virginia began to take shape.  A few months later the name John Brown appeared in her notes and she began to research, stumbling across the name of his daughter Sarah.

Eden is a character of fiction while Sarah is a fictionalized historical character, yet Ms. McCoy managed to make both of them come alive.  You’ll find yourself cheering both of them on to use their unique gifts and talents and find purpose in life.

The book is meticulously researched, including elements of the country’s mid-nineteenth century struggles with the slavery issue, John Brown’s cause, the Underground Railroad and its use of maps and children’s dolls to smuggle them across enemy lines, and much more.  A compelling, imaginative and well-written story for anyone interested in the Civil War era and the Underground Railroad.

Rating:  ★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

  © Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2016.

Military History Monday: Hello Girls of World War I

HelloGirlsDuring World War I they were officially known as the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit, but more informally known as “Hello Girls”.  The United States had been reluctant to join its European allies in the conflict, but when Germany began an all-out effort in early 1917 to sink American vessels in the North Atlantic, President Woodrow Wilson’s hand was forced.  He asked Congress for a declaration of war, “a war to end all wars”.  On April 6, 1917 Congress officially did so, engaging the Germans and hoping to make the world once again safe for democracy.

The British had been at war with German for nearly three years when the United States joined the effort.  With their men away fighting the war, large numbers of women were working in munitions factories throughout Britain.  Their work was dangerous as explosives and chemicals caused deaths.  The greatest single loss occurred in early January 1917 when a munitions factory in Silvertown, England exploded due to an accidental fire – seventy-two women were severely injured and sixty-nine perished.


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